Saturday, September 22, 2012

Giving to Caesar

[One of two editorials I submitted to WORLD Magazine in the Summer of 2010, although unfortunately they were turned down. Let me know what you think! Special thanks to Rob Zambito for his helpful edits on this one.]

One political movement that is almost universally derided by both students and faculty at my college is the so-called “Tea Party” movement. Even if some of my conservative Christian friends are sympathetic with the Tea Party’s concerns about universal healthcare, they are extremely hesitant to associate themselves with the group itself. And I think that, in general, they are correct to do so. Any political movement that puts Christians’ rights and wallets above all else threatens our opportunity to witness and, more seriously, disobeys Jesus’ radical message. Christians are called by him to be meek and ready to give more than they are asked—a call that stands at odds with the focus on individual rights in the Republican Party.

First, let’s remember the historical situation Jesus was in when he preached a Gospel of selfless love. The Jews were under the military rule of the Romans, an idol-worshiping pagan empire whose ruler believed he was God. The rulers were appointed, not elected; taxes were heavy, and any soldier could demand help carrying his pack (note that compared to this, even the most radical leftist proposals sound tame).

Despite all this, Jesus commanded acquiescence to the Romans. Implying that money and finances were ultimately to be considered of the world, he told his disciples to “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:13-17). Even if those taxes to Caesar supported an idolatrous, aggressive, and evil empire? Yes. Walk twice as far to help an enemy soldier carry his heavy backpack (Matthew 5:41)? You bet. Material comfort and possessions are fleeting, lacking real worth, and must be let go the moment they conflict with the command to love.

It seems that Jesus’ methods of fighting a government he disagreed with are totally different than those that humans would normally think of. Instead of insisting on liberty and freedom, he asked his followers to give up their rights. This upside-down Gospel is completely counter-intuitive to human understanding…but it’s God’s way. And Christians run the risk of being spit out like lukewarm water if we do not follow it completely. 
Theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, discussing the Beatitudes, wrote that true Christians “possess no inherent right of its own to protect its members in the world, nor do they claim such rights, for they are meek, they renounce every right of their own and live for the sake of Jesus…they will not go to law to defend their rights, or make a scene when they suffer injustice, nor do they insist on their legal rights. They are determined to leave their rights to God alone…they show by every word and gesture that they do not belong to this earth” (The Cost of Discipleship). 

In contrast to those Bonheoffer wrote about, when we look at the current political incarnation of conservative Christianity, we mostly see people who do nothing but insist on their own rights. Rather than accept persecution and remember that the meek and poor in spirit are blessed, Christians act as if God’s people depend on tax breaks, legal support, and lawsuits to protect themselves. 

Perhaps this flaw lies deeper within American history than we are ready to admit. The American Revolution was a war fought against taxes. Taxes! Tens of thousands of the individuals with same language, culture, and God killed each other in a dispute over money.
Now, I’m not saying that America has not also done good for this world. But let’s face it, as far as living up to Jesus’ commands in the area of loving our enemies (Matthew 5:38-39, 44-48) is concerned, the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi is a better example for us than the Christian George Washington. Gandhi’s nonviolent protests also brought about social and political revolution, but claimed the moral high ground in a way our Founding Fathers never could. 

Now, getting back to the Tea Party movement, besides the disobedience of Jesus’ commands, I think that the excess of emotion is misplaced. If even a fraction of the vitriol involved in it was instead expressed against human trafficking, starvation, or any other human rights issue, I think we would see much more real, positive change than is currently being achieved. Large-scale, nonviolent protests can be used for good, but mostly this occurs when they demand the rights of others (such as the abolitionist movement did) instead of their own rights.

The best alternative may be for the Tea Party to give liberals what they want, but on God’s terms: Christians should (and some already do) give up large portions of their income to support those who are without health insurance, as well as those who are poor, imprisoned, immigrants, or unable to afford an education. Doing this would create truly meaningful relationships, opportunities to witness, and fulfill God’s perennial command to take care of the hurting. Such love would bring “Change” better than any social program ever could.

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